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Literary Symbiosis

The Reconfigured Text in Twentieth-Century Writing

David Cowart

Publication Year: 1994

"It is only the unimaginative who ever invents," Oscar Wilde once remarked. "The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes, and he annexes everything." Converying a similar awareness, James Joyce observes in Finnegan's Wake that storytelling is in reality "stolen-telling," that art always involves some sort of "theft" or borrowing.

Usually literary borrowings are so integrated into the new work as to be disguised; however, according to David Cowart, recent decades have seen an increasing number of texts that attach themselves to their sources in seemingly parasitic—but, more accurately, symbiotic—dependence. It is this kind of mutuality that Cowart examines in his wide-ranging and richly provocative study Literary Symbiosis. Cowart considers, for instance, what happens when Tom Stoppard, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, rewrites Hamlet from the point of view of its two most insignificant characters, or when Jean Rhys, in Wide Sargasso Sea, imagines the early life of Bertha Rochester, the mad-woman in the attic in Jane Eyre.

In such works of literary symbiosis, Cowart notes, intertextuality surrenders its usual veil of near invisibility to become concrete and explicit—a phenomenon that Cowart sees as part of the postmodern tendency toward self-consciousness and self-reflexivity. He recognizes that literary symbiosis has some close cousins and so limits his compass to works that are genuine reinterpretations, writings that cast a new light on earlier works through "some tangible measure of formal or thematic evolution, whether on the part of the guest alone or the host and guest together." Proceeding from this intriguing premise, he offers detailed readings of texts that range from Auden's "The Sea and the Mirror," based on The Tempest, to Valerie Martin's reworking of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as Mary Reilly, to various fictions based on Robinson Crusoe. He also considers, in Nabokov's Pale Fire, a compelling example of text and parasite-text within a single work.

Drawing on and responding to the ideas of disparate thinkers and critics—among them Freud, Harold Bloom, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Hillis Miller, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.—Cowart discusses literary symbiosis as Oedipal drama, as reading and misreading, as deconstruction, as Signifying, and as epistemic dialogue. Although his main examples come from the contemporary period, he refers to works dating as far back as the classical era, works representing a range of genres (drama, fiction, poetry, opera, and film). The study of literary symbiosis, Cowart contends, can reveal much about the dynamics of literary renewal in every age. If all literature redeems the familiar, he suggests, literary symbiosis redeems the familiar in literature itself.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Frontispiece

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pp. ix

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pp. ix

It is humbling to contemplate how much help one has had in the production of a modest book. I am fortunate to be at the University of South Carolina, which offers generous support of research. My department appointed me to its rotating research professorship for a crucial semester, and the university's...

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1 Tradition, Talent, and "Stolentelling"

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pp. 1-26

Oscar Wilde once remarked, "It is only the unimaginative who ever invents. The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes, and he annexes everything."1 Wilde's observation prefigures a famous dictum of T. S. Eliot's: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."2 The force of these epigrams...

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2 Tragedy and the "Post-Absurd"

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pp. 27-45

However benign, symbiosis has a subversive tendency; the latecomer's exploitation of a host text more or less naturally begins with its aporias, those places in it where object threatens to subvert subject, where the assumption or absolute that provides the text's epistemological bedrock begins to...

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3 Patriarchy and Its Discontents

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pp. 46-65

Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea does not, like Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, represent a comprehensive rewriting of the host text—at least it does not at first seem to. From the flourishing literary plant Jane Eyre Rhys takes as it were a cutting, which then matures as a related but different plant. Such...

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4 Proleptic Parody

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pp. 66-84

Medieval philosophers explained mortality as the result of an imbalance in the elemental composition of an organism. Hence the line in Donne's "The Good-Morrow": Whatever dies was not mixed equally. Perhaps the unequal mixing of elements in symbiosis might also prove fatal—the too-successful guest discovering itself...

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5 Fathers and Rats

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pp. 85-104

Charles Kinbote, trying to be John Shade's double, gradually reveals another self in King Charles Xavier the Beloved of Zembla. Humbert Humbert, with his droll mirror name, discovers in Clare Quilty an alter ego with whom he executes an hilarious dance around the stable-identity maypole....

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6 The Sexual and Cultural Other in Peking and Nagasaki

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pp. 105-126

The butterfly: an ancient and richly varied symbol in both Western and Eastern art. Poets and mythographers traditionally associate it with the soul, with rebirth, and with transformation. In the story of Cio Cio San and Lieutenant...

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7 Adrian & Francisco Are Gay: Auden Reading Shakespeare

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pp. 127-148

"It's surprising that there have been so few imitations of Shakespeare," W. H. Auden once remarked.1 The point is less valid, perhaps, after Tom Stoppard, but as Auden himself demonstrates, Shakespeare can bring out the best in those who follow or challenge him. Where Stoppard, with Hamlet and Macbeth his symbiotic matrices, turns Shakespearean tragedy inside-out, W. H....

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8 Epistemic Dialogue: Defoe, Cozzens, Tournier, Coetzee

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pp. 149-172

Literary historians honor Robinson Crusoe as the founding piece of a new genre: the English novel. Though the present study generally holds to the intcrtcxtual argument that literary originality is a myth, Defoe's famous story comes close to being sui generis. One can, to be sure, construe it as yet another...

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9 Ancients and Moderns and Postmoderns

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pp. 173-190

Rewriting Beowulf as Grendel, John Gardner marshals a little more reverence than Tom Stoppard brings to the transformation of Hamlet into Rosencrantz &Guildenstern Are Dead. These four texts are, however, interestingly related. As Stoppard's play includes a character—the Player—who invites recognition...

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10 Stretto Conclusion: The Lyric Symbiont

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pp. 191-208

Stretto: a kind of fugal exposition in miniature. Late in a fugue, the composer will often repeat—at an accelerated tempo—the statement of the musical subject in its various voices. Hence Thomas Pynchon, describing the rapid alteration of weather in the days around a February episode of "false spring...


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pp. 209-228

Works Cited

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pp. 229-240


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pp. 241-254

E-ISBN-13: 9780820342085
E-ISBN-10: 0820342084
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820342085
Print-ISBN-10: 0820315443

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 1994

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Literature, Modern -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Intertextuality.
  • Influence (Literary, artistic, etc.).
  • Criticism -- History -- 20th century.
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